Fire in the Steppe:
Soviet Tanks, Part Two

The Soviet Union’s First Five Year Plan provided huge numbers of armored vehicles for the Red Army of Workers and Peasants. But by the late 1930s, the tanks of the 1931 program had become largely obsolete. Soviet engineers labored to produce new, modern designs to retain their edge.

In Panzer Grenadier: Fire in the Steppe the Soviet arsenal includes both the older tanks and those of the pre-war program. Here we have a look at the more modern vehicles designed just before the outbreak of the Great Patriotic War.

Soviet doctrine included a tank battalion in every rifle division, almost always comprised of T-26 infantry support tanks (a few divisions had the T-37 amphibious tank). Light tanks also formed the bulk of the Red Army tank divisions’ armor strength in 1941, but plans called for replacing most of these with modern T-34 medium tanks. Light tanks would be relegated to reconnaissance roles.

Light tanks had other advantages in a socialist economy: they could be built on automobile assembly lines that couldn’t accomodate a larger tank and used the same engines that powered trucks. Constructing them did not come at the cost of bigger, more capable machines.

In 1940, the Red Army accepted the T-40 amphibious light tank. The 5.5-ton tank had a four-bladed propellor to move it through water, but amphibious performance was poor and most T-40s had their shaft removed and the opening plated over. The tank carried a 12.7mm heavy machine gun and one standard 7.62mm machine gun.

The T-40 disappointed the tank troops, who disliked its weak armament and poor protection. Only 220 of them were built. The infantry, meanwhile, wanted a support tank with greater firepower like the T-26. In 1940, the T-34 did not seem capable of fulfilling this need, and so the Defense Committee of the People’s Commissariat ordered the T-50 light tank.

The T-50 was a handsome little tank, weighing 14 tons and looking like a miniature T-34. It went into production in April 1941, but ended up costing slightly more than the medium tank, and so production was halted after only 65 had been built. The T-50 had very modern features: sloped armor, welded construction, a good reliable engine yielding excellent speed, and unlike other types a radio in every tank.

By mid-summer 1941 the T-34 had shown its worth in combat, but the Defense Committee wanted to build huge numbers of light tanks in factories that could not handle the bigger vehicle. The T-60 was quickly designed to this requirement, re-working the T-40 chassis to carry more armor, but it was still vulnerable to the German 37mm anti-tank gun. A small turret offset to one side held a 20mm automatic cannon adapted from an aircraft weapon.

The T-60 had been intended to operate easily in snow and mud conditions, but failed this requirement. It made its combat debut in large numbers during the Soviet winter offensive of December 1941 and January 1942. Production continued until late 1942, and 6,292 of the machines were built.

The most famous tank of the Second World War, the T-34, began in a late 1937 project when Kharkiv Locomotive Works were ordered to create another in the BT series of wheel/track fast tanks. The tank was to weigh no more than 15 tons, and be armed with a 45mm gun. At the same time, the works received orders to design a larger tank with a 76.2mm gun, also to run on either wheels or tracks.

T-34/76 tanks with tank riders.

The design team jettisoned the wheeled capability in order to improve off-road performance, and when they presented their plans the People’s Commissar for Defense, Klimenti Voroshilov, lambasted them for disobeying a direct order. The chief engineer, Mikhail Koshkin, stood up to the Marshal and insisted that his team could meet the specified speeds on tracks alone. Josef Stalin intervened personally, directing that the engineers be given a chance to build prototypes of the two tanks and show their worth.

The prototype that would become the T-34 made the drive from Kharkiv to Moscow in the spring of 1940, and was demonstrated for the Soviet leadership inside the Kremlin. After more testing, the order went out to begin series production, and the first models rolled off the lines in July 1940.

The new tank had sloped armor, excellent off-road mobility, and after February 1941 a new 76.2mm tank gun. On the negative side, only platoon commanders’ vehicles had radios, and German anti-tank gunners eventually learned to concentrate their fire on these.

Over 35,000 T-34/76 tanks would be built by the time they were replaced by the T-34/85 in 1944, an astounding total. Several of the factories building them were re-located east of the Ural mountains during the course of the war. One of them, the Stalin combine, began production before the factory buildings were complete and workers assembled tanks in the frigid outdoor weather. In the Stalingrad Tractor Works, tanks came off the assembly line in one end of the huge building and joined Red Army troops battled the Hitlerites infesting the other end.


Soviet pre-war doctrine also assigned heavy tanks the role of attacking prepared positions, and in February 1939, S.J. Kotlin went against Soviet multi-turret practice with a single-turreted heavy tank. Knowing who he had to please, he named his new tank the Klimenti Voroshilov. Known as the KV, the tank had heavy armor and a 76.2mm gun. Two of them were tested in the Winter War against Finland in late 1939, with series production under way by the middle of the next year. A variant model, the KV-2, had a huge turret with a 152mm howitzer that could only be fired once every three minutes.

The KV series featured thick armor, which German troops came to believe was totally invulnerable. This was not quite true, but the KV was very tough. Its engine was prone to break down, however, as the tank’s weight strained the power plant. The 76.2mm gun also gave it no greater firepower than the T-34 medium tank, with somewhat better protection but much less manueverability.

The KV-1. Disliked by Red Army troops;
disliked by German ones even more.

“The KV, Comrade Stalin, is not popular with the troops,” reported Hero of the Soviet Union M.J. Katukov, one of the Red Army’s top tankers. “What advantages does the heavy tank offer us in battle? Yes, if it had a bigger gun, then we could get along with its higher weight and other design faults.”

Production continued anyway, and the KV was not phased out until 1943. Despite its many flaws, the KV was better than anything in the German inventory.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published far too many books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.



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